Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 9th, 2021
1 John 5:1-6
The First Letter of John is like a diamond. The Elder turns agape love round and around to allow different angles of light to flash upon it. God is love; love is from God; God loves us; we are to love each other; we can love because God first loved us; no one can love God without loving their brother and sister; we show our love for God by loving our brothers and sisters. The Elder rotates the diamond, and the different facets of love shine in the light. In today’s reading another one is illuminated.
Last week we heard the Elder say that ‘The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also’. In today’s reading the direction of ‘love’ and ‘God’ and ‘commandment’ is reversed. Not only will we be seen to love God by loving our brothers and sisters. Not only can we fulfil the commandments by loving others. The relationship also goes the other way. We will be seen to love our brothers and sisters by loving God, and we love God by obeying God’s commandments. The three: love of God; love of other people; love as commandment, are intertwined. One element does not, cannot, exist without the other two.
This is because the love between us and God, the love between us and other Christians, is made possible by the love revealed in and by Jesus. Entangled with the love of God, the love of other people, and love as the fulfilling of the law in the writings of the Elder is always faith in Jesus as the Christ. We trust that in the coming of Jesus as the Saviour of the world we have seen God’s love for us (1 John 4:9,14); we believe that in the human Jesus of Nazareth we have seen the Christ. (1 John 4:15). The Son of God came ‘not with the water only but with the water and the blood,’ the Elder writes. We are reminded today as we were reminded last week that in Jesus of Nazareth the Son did not merely appear to be human, that on the cross the Son did not merely seem to die. Both Jesus’ birth and his death were real; the Incarnation and the Crucifixion were not simply a pretence, as the Johannine community’s opponents seem to have argued. God came and lived with humanity, abided with us, in all the physical messiness, the water and the blood, of human life and death.
It is for this reason that the Elder can say that we will not find God’s commandments burdensome. Not because the Elder is at all naïve about how hard it can sometimes be to love one another. After all, he knew that there had been members of the Johannine community who had the world’s goods, saw a brother or sister in need, and yet refused help. (1 John 3:17) There had been those who thought that they could say, ‘I love God’, while hating their brothers or sisters. (1 John 4:20) The Elder believes that obeying God’s commandments is not burdensome because through Jesus we are God’s beloved children. We abide, we live, in God’s love, and it is from inside the abundance of God’s love that we can love each other and God. Again, the three, love of God, love of other people, love as the fulfilling of the law, are intertwined, and what makes each and all of them possible is our identification with Jesus. Through Jesus we too have been born of God and are the beloved children of God. All that we are commanded to do is to let the love that we know and trust that God has for us overflow in our own lives. The twentieth century mystic, Evelyn Underhill, wrote: ‘We believe that the tendency to give, to share, to cherish, is the mainspring of the universe, ultimate cause of all that is, and reveals the Nature of God: and therefore that when we are most generous we are most living and most real.’ Obeying God’s commandments is not burdensome because it is when we obey them that we are most real.
For the Elder our relationship with Jesus and our relationships with each other are those of siblings. In the Elder’s eyes we are brothers and sisters, and that language is beautiful. But I like the language in today’s reading from the Gospel according to John even better: ‘I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.’ We often use the language of family in the church, and on another Mother’s Day I will tell you about the long history of mystics describing Jesus as ‘Mother’. But the language of friendship is just as meaningful.
All four of the gospels show us Jesus as an ideal friend, engaging in loving, accepting, and transforming relationships with those around him. In the culture that surrounded Jesus, a world full of hierarchies and people with power over others, friendship stood out as the only relationship based upon equality. Socrates saw friendship as subversive because it existed regardless of rank. Marriages at the time were not relationships of equality; society was stratified along class lines, with patrons and clients, and masters and slaves. Friendship was the only model of equality that the ancient world knew, and in today’s reading it is friendship, a relationship of equals, that Jesus offered his disciples.
Friendship has demands, of course. Jesus articulates them: ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ (John 15:13) We are listening to the Farewell Discourse that Jesus gave on his last night with his disciples, so we know that Jesus is not simply describing this greater love. On the following day he will embody it. In his crucifixion Jesus is the friend who lays down his life. We, as his friends, are to embody that friendship too: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ (John 15:12) Just as the Elder in the First Letter of John talks about love as the fulfilling of the commandments, and the obeying of the commandments as love, so Jesus in the Gospel according to John gives ‘love’ as his commandment. If we abide in Jesus’ love, and love one another, we will bear fruit, Jesus’ joy will be in us, and our joy will be complete.
That we might need to show our love for each other, and so for God, by being willing to die for each other is naturally terrifying, so I want to share with you some wisdom from the Desert Fathers. The Desert Fathers were hermits who went to live alone in the Egyptian Desert in the third century so that they could focus on God without the distractions of the world. Unfortunately for them but fortunately for us they were often interrupted in their solitude by other Christians seeking their wisdom, and their sayings were collected and written down. So here are two of their sayings on ‘love’:
[Poemen] said, ‘There is no greater love than that you should lay down your life for your neighbour. When you hear a complaint against you and you struggle with yourself, and do not begin to complain in return, when you bear an injury with patience and do not look for revenge, that is when you lay down your life for your neighbour’.
And my favourite story on love from the Fathers:
Once when John was going up from Scetis with the other monks, their guide lost his way in the night. The brothers said to John, ‘What shall we do, abba, to prevent ourselves dying in the desert, now that this brother has lost the way?’ John said, ‘If we were to say anything to him, he will be upset, so I will pretend I am worn out and say I can’t walk any further, and must stay here till daylight.’ He did so, and the others said, ‘We won’t go on either, we’ll stay with you here.’ They stayed there till dawn, so that they should not blame the monk who had guided them wrongly.
According to these extremely wise Christians, laying down our lives for each other need not mean being crucified for each other. It might entail refusing to complain about another person, refusing to blame another person for something they have done wrong, being careful not to upset another person. And if God is love, as our faith tells us God is, then even our smallest loving actions will contribute to filling the universe with love and so with God.
Whether we use the language of family, of brothers and sisters, as the Elder does or of friendship as Jesus does to his disciples, living as a Christian is, as I say so often, all about love. One of my favourite saints, the 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich, whose book about her visions, her ‘Showings,’ is the earliest surviving book written by a woman in English, wrote so much about love that the title by which her book is known today is Revelations of Divine Love. In the final section Julian writes that fifteen years after her visions came to an end she finally received enlightenment as to their meaning:
‘Do you want to know what our Lord meant in all this? Learn it well: love was what he meant. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? Out of love. Stay with this and you will learn and know about love, but you will never know or learn anything else from it – not ever.’ So I was taught love was what our Lord meant. And I saw with absolute certainty that before God made us he loved us, and that his love never slackened, nor ever will.
We love, because God first loved us. We love, because Jesus showed us what love meant. We love, so that Jesus’ joy may be in us and our joy may be complete. We love, because God is love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Quoted in Elfrida Vipont, The Bridge, London: Oxford University Press, 1962, p. 10.
 The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2003, pp. 178-9.
 The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, p. 178.
 Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1987, p. 169.